Victoria’s New Civic Investment Strategy

After being away at the Local Government Leadership Academy last week, it felt good to be back at the Council table, making big-picture long-term decisions for the city.

Royal Athletic Park

Thursday’s Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC) began with a presentation of the City’s Annual Housing Report for 2011. The news? Not good at all. In order to buy a home in the city you need an annual household income of $120,000 and a $30,000 downpayment. That’s out of reach for many Victorians, with the average annual income in the City sitting around $38,000 (the lowest in the region).

But unaffordable home ownership is just part of the problem. The second part is the very low rate of rental housing construction. According to the City’s report, in 1997 there were 1071 new units of rental housing built. In 2011, 173. The vacancy rate was 1.8% in 2011, below the national average of 2.2%. It’s not a ‘good investment’ to build rental housing, according to Roy Brooke (Director of Sustainability), because you don’t see the return on your investment until at least five years out – not nearly as lucrative as the condo market.

So, people living on limited incomes in Victoria (which is lots of us!) can’t afford to buy homes and can’t find apartments to rent. Thank goodness for citizen innovation! The Community Social Planning Council and others are working to create a Community Investment Fund which can be used to address community needs, including the building of rental housing. Community Investment Funds are community controlled pools of capital which will offer investors a mid- to long-term return. Patient capital it’s called, slow capital, community capital!

Next up and occupying a great deal of our time was the Sustainability Department’s proposed Civic Investment Strategy. In short, the strategy is an overhaul of the City’s grants program. The City currently administers 19 grants programs through five different City departments. The purpose of the grants is to fund delivery of services on behalf of the City, complement or extend the reach of City services, and met evolving corporate and community priorities. Some grants are awarded through a competitive process, others are handed out to organizations simply because, well, they always have been.

The courageous Civic Investment Strategy proposed by the Sustainability Department substantially disrupts the status quo. I strongly support this. The Strategy proposes that all grants – including those to Community and Seniors’ centres – go through a competitive process. That may be going a bit too far. But the point is that if the City is going to be granting taxpayers dollars, we need to be sure that we are getting the best value for those grants. We need to move towards ‘results-based granting’ where we measure the impact that grantee organizations have on the community. How are the grant dollars leveraged? What innovation and lasting legacies do they help to create in our community?

The Strategy proposes streamlining the 19 grant categories into four: Project Grants, Operating Grants, Fee for Service, Capital Grants. I suggested adding a fifth category (but not more money!) ‘Shape Your Future Victoria’ Citizen’s Grants. After an hour of discussion Council passed a motion supporting the Civic Investment Strategy in principle and directing staff to refine the document based on our discussion. It will take courage to move this document forward and move this policy into practice. Courage is necessary for creating much needed and lasting change. 

Of Gulls, Garbage Woes and Rail Bridges

The Governance and Priorities Committee meeting of Thursday February 16 began at 10am and ended at 6pm. Here’s my take on some of what we covered in those eight hours.

Animal Control Bylaw Amendments occupied the first bit our our time. ‘The deer problem’ as it’s come to be known seemed like the key motivating factor for a recommended bylaw change that would see a $350 fine for feeding deer, squirrels, racoons, feral rabbits, pigeons, crows or gulls. The feeding of ducks (perhaps because this is a tourist activity?) remained legal.

Recognizing the ‘pleasure factor’ of feeding gulls pieces of leftover sandwiches during a picnic at Dallas Rd for example, but also the nuisance that gulls and other birds cause to downtown businesses, I suggested that the feeding of birds be illegal downtown but not otherwise. The whole discussion left me with a sour taste in my mouth because while I understand the importance of wildlife control within city limits, I wonder at the thought of bylaw officers roaming around fining and ticketing people for an age-old pass time of feeding the birds.

An angry voter called me soon after to say how could I be so out of it and did I not know the salt content and bad ingredients in the bread people feed to pigeons and seagulls and that there is enough good food in nature for them to eat. The caller claimed that my stand on this was way ‘off track.’ I appreciate the feedback and input. At the same time, my aim is to make sure that taxpayers dollars are well spent. I think we need a balance between the perhaps necessary policing of citizen interaction with wildlife on one hand, especially in the case of deer, and the best possible allocation of the city’s limited bylaw enforcement personnel.

The Department of Engineering and CUPE 50, respectively, both presented once again to GPC to try and resolve the garbage stalemate. Councillor Gudgeon – previously advocating a compromise – came to the table with one in hand: That Council direct staff and the union to come to a solution that would entail weekly garbage and kitchen scraps collection and sideyard pickup. Sideyard pickup was not included as as an option in any of the choices in the City’s December 2011 survey. Councillor Gudgeon’s motion was replaced with Councillor Alto’s “Option B” motion which includes backyard biweekly kitchen scraps and garbage pickup with a savings to users of $41 per year from the current status quo. The motion passed with Councillors Coleman, Young and the mayor opposed.

The garbage debate revolved around whether we were bound by choosing the top option that survey respondents chose Option C – curbside pick up (48%) – or some combination of Option B – backyard pick up biweekly (35%) – and option A – backyard pickup weekly (13%). Councillors at the table at the time of the survey felt they’d promised to implement whatever survey respondents choose. Councillor Gudgeon pointed out that councillors are elected because of our ability to see shades of grey. We are elected to make complex decisions. In this case, what to do when 48% say they want curbside pick up and 48% say they want backyard pick up. 

And finally, to rail on the Johnson Street Bridge. Councillor Isitt put forward a motion that he and other councillors including myself had helped craft. The motion was, in essence, to ask for a simpler more cost effective, ‘bridge for the future’, that would be built to engineering standards to accommodate rail. The motion was defeated with Councillors Alto, Coleman, Young, Thornton-Joe, Madoff and the Mayor opposing it. Councillors Gudgeon, Isitt and myself voted in favour.

In the interest of keeping the bridge project on time and on budget as it proceeds, I made the following motion, which was also crafted with a number of councillors and which passed unanimously:

Be it resolved that staff present to Council a status report on the Project Charter timeline, indicating the progress of each item on the timeline by March 15th, in a format similar to the Corporate Strategic Plan reports that are given quarterly;

Be it further resolved that staff present to Council information with regard to the ‘Unit Price for Steel’ as outlined in the Project Charter to be completed as of Fall 2011 by March 15th;

Be it further resolved that staff present to Council a total detailed project budget including details regarding the cost of building the bascule portion of the bridge at the March 15th meeting;

Be it further resolved that staff present to Council a risk matrix and risk management plan which takes into consideration the External Dependencies and Assumptions outlined in the Project Charter, specific plans made to manage them, and an assessment of the ‘residual’ risks that can’t be managed away.

Baseball or a Park for All

Royal Athletic Park 

Two key items at City Hall last Thursday night. I’ll start with the one that took us to 11pm then backtrack to talk about garbage collection.

At Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC) on January 26th council passed a motion – in closed session – “That Council authorize the Director of Parks and Recreation to enter into a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with regard to the summer use of the Royal Athletic Park in a form satisfactory to the City Solicitor.” I voted in favour of this motion. And, I made a motion to rise and report so we could bring this into the public realm.

But, when Council had this motion before it for ratification on Thursday night (in open session) there was something no longer sitting well with me. So I raised it. I don’t think it’s a good decision to hand over the keys to the Royal Athletic Park for 10 weeks in the summer to an outside entity. Even if the MOU that the Department of Parks head negotiated left room for other uses in addition to a semi-professional baseball team, the team owner not the city would likely determine the timing of other uses. And this would all revolve around the baseball schedule.

 Councillor Young said we need a baseball team because we are the capital city and it will help retain our function as such. The mayor said something similar and he also said that the baseball team is part of an economic development strategy. I said that I don’t think a team coming here and generating economic activity for 10 weeks out of the year is a sustainable mode of economic development. Especially if it means giving over the use of a public facility for a private interest.

When I spoke against the motion, I said for me this is not about whether I like baseball or not. I agreed with Councillor Thornton-Joe’s comments that it is good for young people to have role models and inspiration and that semi-professional baseball players can certainly be part of this. And it’s not about ideology. It’s about considering the best possible use for the city’s only stadium over the summer months. And that best possible use is, in my opinion, a diversity of festivals, sports activities and other innovative uses Victorians will come up with … if we hold onto the keys.

Although the initial vote at GPC had been 8-1 with only Councillor Isitt opposing, we ended up not voting on Thursday evening because councillors needed ‘more information’ to make a decision and referred the issue back to GPC.

Garbage collection also came to us for decision on Thursday evening. CUPE president John Burrows and other citizens made compelling presentations that called into question some of the surveys findings. Mr. Burrows claimed that although the City said 56% of people had responded that cost was the most important factor he had counted only 30.3%. We received a memo Friday morning noting that he likely only had a portion of the survey results. City staff are doing a recount.

Councillor Gudgeon asked Mr. Burrows if the union was willing to compromise – to come to a garbage collection agreement that would benefit Victorians who still want backyard pickup, those who want to save money, and the union, which wants to preserve jobs. I am hopeful that a compromise is possible. Council referred this decision back to GPC as well. The mayor said that we have surveyed people and asked a particular question and they had answered it. He also said that there is a difference between advocacy and governance and that we were elected to govern. I want to think more about this last statement.

Garbage, Work and Garden Suites

The agenda item that consumed most of council’s open session time on Thursday was the future of garbage and kitchen scraps pick up. What to do and how to proceed when survey results can be interpreted in a number of ways?

Another key though short discussion (for now!) was the idea which I put on the table to extend the Secondary Suite Incentive Program to cover building garden suites. I gave ‘notice of motion’ to add Garden Suites to this program. Stay tuned for the February 16 Governance and Priorities Committee.   

In the last term, Council decided to survey residents to ask about garbage and kitchen scraps pick up. Citizens were give three options and maintaining the status quo (once a week garbage pick up from the backyard) was not one of them. The results are in. 48% (2073) voted for bi-weekly curbside collection of garbage and kitchen scraps, 35.3% (1523) for bi-weekly backyard collection of garbage and kitchen scraps and 13.3% (574) voted for alternate weeks kitchen scraps/garbage, backyard collection. City staff recommended – based on Council’s promise to citizens – that we go with the most popular option.

But up next was John Burrows, president of CUPE 50, representing the workers who would lose jobs/hours if we go with the most popular option. He interpreted the survey results differently. More people, he argued (1523 + 574) voted to keep backyard collection. Additionally, if you look at all the comments (which he had done) even some of those who voted for the biweekly collection or who chose no option but commented said they’d like to keep backyard collection. What to do?

City staff said that the survey results also indicated that the most important factor for citizens was cost. And thus, most chose the cheapest option. Balance this against the workers who will be displaced at the lower end of the ‘spareboard’ as those currently involved in garbage pick up lose regular hours and move back to the top of the spareboard based on seniority.

Council decided (8-1) to keep its promise to citizens and go with the option they chose. I voted in favour of this. We will still need to vote on this at the Council meeting this Thursday Feb 9. We also directed staff to look into the possibility of taking over Blue Box pickup from the CRD when that contract expires in 2014. Finally, we asked to know more about the impact on the CUPE workers before making a final decision. I will wait to make my final decision until all the information is in.

This is one of those challenging situations where the City is both the employer, responsible to its employees, and the service provider, responsible to its customers. This is one of those situations where – in my mind – the good of the many must be considered over the good for the few. These are hard and important choices. 

Rise and Report

Last Thursday was a very long day at City Hall. In part because we’re still finding our way as a working group – balancing the nine strong voices at the table, ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard. In part because there were three items that took a lot of time to get through – two in open session, one in closed. Royal Athletic Park

Because I now know ‘rise and report’, I can discuss all three here and would love your input on the third. Read on.

Shannon Craig (Corporate Policy Analyst) and Rob Woodland (Director of Legislative Services) presented a detailed report requesting changes to the “Vehicles for Hire Bylaw”. On the table was everything from how many pedicab licenses they City should issue to how much weight should horses be allowed to pull. Councillor Isitt aimed to amend motions to include the public in discussion. Councillors Madoff and Colemen also pointed to the need for a more complete understanding of how the proposed changes affect not only the businesses in question, but also the public and the public realm. I agree. Because these are bylaw changes, they will require a public hearing and likely some consultation before that. This is a good thing.

My intervention was to make a motion to increase the number of pedicab licenses from 28 to 75. I put this forward on the basis that pedicabs provide an opportunity for small-scale entrepreneurship, they are human-powered and create zero emissions, they increase the vibrancy of the public realm, and with more licenses approved than are necessary (we were told there are no more than 50 people right now wanting licenses) there is no drain on staff resources to administer a bidding or lottery process needed for allocating limited licenses. The motion carried.

The next item of significant business was a decision to move the Reliance Properties proposal for the Northern Junk site forward to Heritage Advisory Committee, Advisory Design panel and a third party economic analysis. The Times Colonist reported that Northern Junk plan divides city council. However, what was clear at the table was not ‘division’ but that rather that there’s room for a diversity of opinion. And once the motion had passed, even those councillors opposed chimed in to give direction to Deb Day (Director of Planning) and her staff about the kinds of issues they’d like considered.

In the Northern Junk discussion, Councillor Isitt introduced a motion to delay approval of the staff recommendation until we receive an update on the possibility of rail crossing the new Johnson Street bridge. A decision was made by the last council that there would be no rail bridge. There are a number of us who want to know what the load rating of the new bridge is, in case sometime in the next 100 years or so street cars might once again become a critical piece of the city’s transportation infrastructure. This motion was defeated. I voted against it because while I believe the potential for rail on the bridge is imperative, I don’t think it is fair to tie it to whether this development moves forward or not. Councillor Isitt introduced a subsequent notice of motion asking for a report on rail on the bridge. This is a good thing!

In the afternoon, we moved into closed session – for the reasons outlined in the agenda thanks to a process that I helped to institute last week, stating the reasons for going in camera. The Vic News found this simple innovation newsworthy! Victoria city council to publish reason for closing meeting. In closed session, I made a motion to rise and report on a motion we passed: “That Council authorize the Director of Parks and Recreation to enter into a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding with regard to the summer use of the Royal Athletic Park in a form satisfactory to the City Solicitor.” And now my question to you: What are your priorities for summer use of the Royal Athletic Park? Should any group have exclusive use of the park or should any agreement include a commitment to mixed use? Email me your thoughts at lisa@lisahelpsvictoria.ca.

Rise and Report

I learned a new tool at city hall this week called ‘rise and report’. This is the mechanism to bring decisions that were made in closed session into the public realm. I used it. Please read on; this is important even if you’re not concerned about the Northern Junk lands per se.

Many people are aware of the proposed development by Reliance Properties of the Northern Junk buildings at Pandora and Wharf. People have written to me both in support of and opposed to the development.

 Proposed condo building and refurbished Northern Junk buildings

This proposed development is far from the public hearing stage – that’s the time and place for the developer to present the project to the public and for the public to speak. On December 15th, the Governance and Priorities Committee of Council asked for more information before deciding whether to move the project along to the next phase – an analysis of economic benefits to the city, and to Advisory Design Panel and Heritage Advisory Committee. This information will be provided on January 26th.

Here’s the kicker. Many of the folks opposed to the project are opposed on the basis that public lands will be sold to the developer. Some claim that public lands should not be sold without going on the open market. Others claim that the boulevard in question is valuable public green space and shouldn’t be removed at any cost. It is too late. In closed session on January 14, 2010, Councillor Lucas moved and Councillor Luton seconded that Council:

1. Grant permission for the developer to submit a rezoning application for the City-owned land as shown on Map 1, attached to the report dated December 17, 2009, recognizing that this would not fetter their discretion on considering the rezoning and that Council’s expectation is that any rezoning proposal would:

a.) Be consistent with the height regulations contained in the CA-3C Zone (Old Town District)

b.) Be consistent with the Old Town Design Guidelines.

c.) Include a pathway connecting the bridge and Wharf St, the design of which acknowledges the public importance of this space and link.

2. Enter into an agreement of purchase and sale for the above noted property, at fair market value, once (my emphasis) any Official Community Plan and zoning amendments are complete and necessary development controls have been established.

Council passed this motion and committed public lands for sale to the developer, two years ago. I thought it important to ‘rise and report’ on this issue because it provides the full context in which we must all consider the proposed development.

Busy day at City Hall yesterday

Running off to meetings this morning then away overnight but will give brief update about what happened, how I voted, and why.

Significant items included the Northern Junk building proposal at Wharf. Reliance Properties proposes to restore two heritage buildings, build another building and create public amenities. Staff recommended moving this forward to Heritage, Design and undertaking a third party economic analysis as to whether the amenities provided were adequate for the zoning and changes required.

There was significant discussion at the table as to whether this is the best use of waterfront lands and how this fits into the plans for the new Johnson Street Bridge. Ultimately, the proposal is moving along with staff to come back to Governance and Priorities Committee (that’s council meeting as a whole every second Thursday morning – important policy decisions made here, meetings begin at 10:00am) with drawings of the new Johnson Street Bridge incorporated into the plans. I supported moving the proposal along and getting more information about how it will benefit the city and the public realm.

Other matters discussed include: re-opening the Chander-Gonzales Pathway – I’m in support. And approving Festival Grants for 2012 ($156,000) – I’m in support and was astounded to find that these grants combined with the operating budgets of festival organizers provide over 8 million dollars in local economic spinoffs. I like this principle of small investments by the city, combined with the efforts of citizens, creating great benefits to all. There was a budget update and request to transfer monies from contingency to operating.

Extra council meeting

I wanted to let everyone know about an extra council meetingthis week – Tuesday from 2-3pm. I can’t seem to find the agenda online to put a link to it (nor one to Thursday’s regular council meeting – perhaps these go up Monday?) to post here. The purpose of Tuesday’s special meeting is to slightly increase the user fees beginning January 1 2012 for Garbage Pickup, Sewer, and Water. Proposed changes include Garbage and Recycling Fee increase per Single Family Dwelling per year from $195.12 to $202.92.

The increase reflects increased labour and benefit costs, increased equipment costs, increased costs for operating the Saturday Residential Yard and Garden Waste drop off facility, and the cost of preparing for the new Organics and Garbage Collection Program. Sewer consumption fee proposed to go from $1.58 to $1.74 and Frontage Service Charge from $2.26 to $2.51. The Water Consumption Fee to increase from $2.74 to $3.00 (still very low compared to much of rest of CRD) Meter Service Charge to increase by an average of 10% (Staff reports detail what this all means; come to City Hall Tuesday to grab a copy if you’re interested).